A recent report illustrates how federal funding for basic scientific research stimulates the economy by laying the groundwork for new businesses. The 100 companies highlighted in the report all got their starts from basic science discoveries that were funded by the federal government.
The report—Sparking Economic Growth 2.0 [pdf]—is a product of the nonprofit Science Coalition, an organization made up of more than 50 public and private universities. It gives several examples of companies selling really innovative products—all of which had their start with research performed in academic labs. While we hear all the time about how basic science is important partially because it leads to such new technologies, it's neat to see some actual examples.
One of these companies is HaloSource, a water purification technologies company based in Seattle, Wash. HaloSouce got its start when Michigan State microbiologist Jeffrey F. William teamed up with Auburn University chemist Dave Worley. Worley's studies of novel biocides—which kill viruses and bacteria on contact—led to the creation of the water filtration devices sold by HaloSource. This research was funded by the Departments of Agriculture and Defense. Now HaloSource devices are being used to remove sediment [pdf] from water during dam reconstruction in Vancouver, B.C., in order to preserve salmon spawning habitat, and are providing clean drinking water for a village in Malawi.
Another interesting company mentioned in the report is Nanofiber Solutions, which got its start with Jed Johnson's graduate studies on modeling the migratory behavior of cancer cells in John Lannutti's lab at the Ohio State University—research that was paid for by the National Science Foundation. Johnson discovered a way to engineer nanofibers into three-dimensional scaffolds. In 2011, Nanofiber Solutions used this technology to make an artificial trachea, which was transplanted into a cancer patient. Since then, three other people have been received these transplants, and Nanofiber Solutions is now working on an implant for patients with short bowel syndrome [pdf].
Two themes stood out to me when I read this report. The first was how esoteric-sounding basic research grants led directly to the formation of companies striving to address problems faced by everyday people. While your average Jane might not feel that it is worthwhile to fund an NSF study entitled, "Anhydrous Fluoride Salts," she would probably take advantage of a positron emission tomography (PET) scan using dyes developed from this research if she were diagnosed with cancer.
The second theme that struck me is what an amazingly good deal American taxpayers are getting when they invest in scientific research. The many years of research that went into founding the companies included in this report came from a total of only $330 million in federally funded grant money—less than 5 percent of the most recent annual NSF budget, or about 1 percent of the most recent NIH budget. And these are unrealistic comparisons given that this research spanned years and multiple funding agencies. Just think of the economic benefit that must come from the entire basic research budget. This is definitely something for lawmakers to keep in mind when addressing sequestration and other recent cuts to basic science research.